Max Freedom

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Thursday, September 15, 2005

Katrina and the State

The tales of government blunders in the wake of Hurricane Katrina just keep pouring in. First it was the delays in getting help to the region. Then it was the unwillingness of FEMA rescuers to take pets, highlighted by a story about a little boy whose dog was taken from him while he waited to board a bus and who cried inconsolably for “Snowball” until he vomited. We found out that FEMA “forgot” to have the military airlift food and water to survivors. Then we learned that Navy pilots were reprimanded for rescuing stranded civilians on the way back from a supply run because it was not part of their mission. And, by now, everyone has heard how New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin delayed implementing the city’s evacuation plan – leaving the bus fleet idle - out of a fear of lawsuits.

Of greater concern are the blunders made by government that hampered the efforts of private companies and individuals to provide needed help such as when a Wal-Mart employee with a truckload of bottled water was turned away at the outset of relief efforts because FEMA officials told him it was “not needed”. An offer of help from Chicago was reportedly “snubbed” by FEMA. A group of Indiana firefighters who volunteered to help were sent to a course on community relations and sexual harassment and told that their job would be to hand out fliers. Amtrak offered to evacuate people from New Orleans, but city officials turned them down and the last train pulled out without a passenger on board. And, initially, Louisiana’s department of homeland security denied the Red Cross entry to the Superdome with food, water and sanitary facilities.

One of the more disturbing tales comes from two EMTs, whose story has been circulating via e-mail and has been confirmed by other sources, who were attending a conference in New Orleans when Katrina struck. When it became apparent that no rescue was imminent for them or hundreds of others stranded at their hotel, they decided to save themselves, pooling their funds to hire ten buses to pick them up. They waited for two days for the buses to arrive unaware that, upon arriving at the outskirts of the city, they had been commandeered by the military. Later, as the desperate group, having gone without food or water for some time, attempted to walk out together, they were met at the Mississippi border by armed Gretna sheriffs who blocked the roadway, fired over the heads of the beleagered walkers and refused them entry because they didn’t want any Superdomes in their city.

Meanwhile, real heroes were bypassing government channels in order to offer assistance. Warren Evans, sheriff of Wayne County, Michigan, refused to wait for a formal request and took 33 deputies to Louisiana while other law enforcement volunteers spent days filling out preliminary paperwork. Richard Zucschlag, head of southern Louisiana's largest private ambulance transport company, Acadian Ambulance, without waiting for authorization, sent seven helicopters and 40 ambulances into New Orleans to perform rescue work and sent another ten medics to the Superdome, where they were the only treatment unit for more than a day-and-a-half. Dr. Angelo Salvucci, Santa Barbara’s director of emergency services, hitched a ride to the region with a private group taking in medical supplies. He had tried to volunteer his services through channels but was told by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to call the Medical Reserve Corp … who told him to contact his home state of California … who told him to call HHS.

It was the private sector that really stepped up. Zucschlag’s wasn’t the only private ambulance service to answer the call. Many, like Med-Ex, a member of the Chicago Ambulance Alliance, came from across the country and are still serving needs in the region.

The Red Cross was on the scene providing food, water, supplies and necessary care almost universally before public resources were brought to bear, but was prevented from entering the city itself by the National Guard and local authorities whose first concern was not rescue but securing the area. Still, the organization quickly set up shelters and provided assistance to almost 93,000 people.

The Red Cross even provided financial assistance and even debit cards while a similar program run by FEMA was falling apart. While FEMA was telling people who’d lost everything that they needed a valid phone number or e-mail address, Red Cross volunteers signed 2,200 relief checks in a single day at a single location. In short order, private relief efforts collected as much as $1 billion including more than three-quarters of a billion in monetary assistance and untold amounts of in-kind assistance.

Even before the storm made landfall, companies like Wal-Mart and Federal Express were moving hundreds of tons of supplies into place so that they could be available to meet the coming need. Of course, they didn’t expect their trucks to be turned back. State Farm and other insurance companies sent in thousands of claims agents to expedite disaster claims and provide relief where it was needed. Oil companies, admittedly sensitive to the public perception of price hikes, set up temporary shelters for employees and their families so that the facilities could be reopened as quickly as possible and service to the region could be restored.

And while local, state and federal officials spent time jawboning before television cameras, private individuals and local churches, quietly and without fanfare, took up the burden of helping those truly in need.

Is there really any doubt that the unbridled faith in the government is misplaced?

Perhaps the best evidence that the government does the job poorly are two things that have been incorrectly laid at the feet of the current administration: the failure of the levees and the lawlessness that ensued. Don’t get me wrong. The administration has done more than enough to warrant criticism, some of which has already been mentioned, but in these two cases, the blame can be spread around much more than to a single individual or even a single administration. The whole point is that government fails to meet such needs regardless of who is at the helm.

That the levees broke when they did should come as no surprise to anyone. The administration shot itself in the foot by stating that no one could have predicted the occurrence when it had been the subject of an article in National Geographic less than a year before and the most recent report on the potential losses of a hurricane in the region specifically mentioned the failure of the levees.

But the fact is that the inadequacy of the levees has been known for more than a generation. According to the Los Angeles Times, plans to build a hurricane barrier to protect New Orleans were scrapped in the face of a lawsuit filed by Save the Wetlands (an organization not harmed by inadequate levees) in 1977. It has also been reported that a plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to raise and strengthen the levees around New Orleans was halted in 1996 by a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club (another organization not harmed by inadequate levees). And it’s not exactly like the people of Louisiana were abandoned by the holders of federal money. While efforts to strengthen the levees were halted, Louisiana has received more federal money for projects by the Army Corps of Engineers ($1.9 billion) over the last five years than any other state. The levees protecting the safety of the people of New Orleans were not at the top of the government’s priority list because the negative incentive of environmental lawsuits was greater than any concerns about safety.

Of course, if it weren’t for the warped incentives provided by a flood insurance program, heavily subsidized by taxpayers, that grossly undercharges for the flood risk in a city resting several feet below sea level, particularly given the inadequacy of the levees, perhaps there would have been greater insistence on the part of the residents that the need be addressed. Or, perhaps, fewer people would have chosen to live and work in such an at-risk location in the first place.

And then there’s the lawlessness, which got so bad that Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco sent in the National Guard happy that they knew how to “shoot to kill”. It must be remembered that the lawlessness in New Orleans did not suddenly appear in the wake of the hurricane. New Orleans has been one of the most crime riddled cities, consistently among the most dangerous cities in America (most recently ranked twelfth) for several years. As snipers fired on rescuers, a cable repairman who had evacuated the city noted that he frequently needed a police escort to do his job and one of his most common repairs was to fix cable boxes that had been damaged by gunfire. The failure to protect the citizens of New Orleans from violence and crime predates the hurricane by decades.

Here, again, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this was a failure of government to simply “give” enough to the people of New Orleans to address poverty there. It is the reliance upon such measures that is simply another failure laid squarely at the feet of government. The federal government has flooded (pun intended) Louisiana and New Orleans with money. The current administration alone has spent more than $10 billion in welfare assistance in Louisiana in cash, food stamps, public housing, Medicaid and literally dozens of other anti-poverty programs, largely in urban areas like New Orleans. Yet New Orleans continued to have one of the highest poverty rates in the country and, for the most part, it was the recipients of this government largesse who failed to escape the city before disaster struck.

The whole tragic episode is a case study on the inability of the government to protect people. So what does the government propose to address the issues now? The response has been entirely predictable. To date, only three remedies have been proposed: 1) set up a commission to study the problem and affix blame, 2) rapidly throw money (estimates run to $200 billion, nearly $400,000 per New Orleans resident) at the problem in an effort to appear sufficiently caring, and 3) consider “wider powers” for the U.S. military in the wake of natural disasters. If any of this instills in you a sense of confidence or comfort…

…you haven’t been paying attention.

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5 Comments:

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